“Now And Then – The Last Beatles Song” Documentary

Documentary director Oliver Murray - Courtesy Oliver Murray

On November 1, a day before the release of “Now and Then,” fans were treated to a special film, a 12-minute documentary titled Now and Then – The Last Beatles Song, directed by British filmmaker Oliver Murray. The film wonderfully mixes footage from the 1995 sessions (and more recent), intermingled with loads of great archival Beatles footage, all of it beautifully restored. And unlike so many rock documentaries, it is The Beatles themselves who walk us through the process, rather than a narrator type.

Apple Corps’ Jonathan Clyde and Universal Music’s Sophie Hilton were familiar with Oliver’s work with the Stones and others and approached the director in March 2023 about creating the film. “I’ve enjoyed a really positive working relationship with Universal Music for a couple of years,” the director explains. “I think they wanted someone who was known to them, because this was a special project. I’ve been very lucky, and have worked with The Rolling Stones a couple of times. And I think they felt there was going to be a certain level of intimacy required that suited my slightly paired-back kind of filmmaking.”

Though it was initially considered that it would take just a few months to craft, he knew the project would take much longer, given the production steps required. His team began small, and then grew over time. “I start off working by myself, with a backpack and a laptop. But, by the end, there were 50 people working on it, lovingly restoring and mixing, and getting it cinema ready.”

Behind the Scenes of "Now and Then"
Oliver’s approach to the film was one that reflected his own sense of awe, as he learned of the process of making the recording, particularly with respect to John’s vocal. “I wanted to give the audience the experience that I had, of listening first to the cassette demo recording and understanding the technical difficulties involved. John’s in there, but he’s buried under these layers of sonic debris.” His way of thinking on a project like this is “musical archaeology,” as he calls it. “John’s in there, but it’s not gonna be a straightforward thing to excavate him, with the care and attention that would be required to live up to its billing as ‘the last Beatles record.’”

So that was the start, to put pieces of the puzzle down on the video’s timeline in the editing room: “Principally, teeing up the evolution of John, from deep inside this tape, to him being in the room with you. But also, putting that in the context of Paul and Ringo getting their friend back, to play with one last time.”

Key to having that experience is to have Paul and Ringo, as well as George and John, be the ones telling us the story. In his first brainstorming meeting with Jonathan Clyde, Oliver explains, “We decided that it was just going to be interviews with people who could talk about it firsthand. If they weren’t in the room—if it’s not Paul or Ringo or tapes of George, or if it’s not Sean talking about his dad at the time, growing up with him—then we just weren’t going to include it. And, besides, when you’ve got a master storyteller like Paul McCartney, there’s no editing required.”

Something he has often made use of is capturing interviews, like those with Paul and Ringo, solely as audio interviews, with no camera present. “When you take cameras out of an interview, it’s way more relaxed. In some instances, it’s the only way to get access to some of these people. It’s just me turning up with a backpack, compared to 12 people, a truck, big hunks of metal equipment that are gonna smash into someone’s coffee table and ruin their mood. When it’s just me, they sit, and it’s almost like a therapy session. That’s where people get emotional. They feel they can go off on a tangent, that there’s no time pressure, there’s no performance element. If they want to lie down on the carpet and talk to me, they can do that. The quicker I can get out of their way, the better. And if you can marry those kinds of stories with amazing, evocative archive, the audience is right there with them.”

During the week of March 6, Oliver and Jonathan did the interviews in the UK, Jonathan speaking with Ringo, who was in L.A., remotely. Oliver submitted questions to the drummer to ponder ahead of time. “I don’t think he likes endless interviews, so it’s important not to load him up with a pile of questions,” the filmmaker notes. “It turns something that could be a chore into something that’s actually quite nice, especially when he’s just talking to Jonathan. These guys aren’t being forced to speak to anybody. And Ringo loves music, he loves playing, and he loves the legacy of The Beatles.”

For actual new footage of Paul, Ollie visited him at his studio, The Mill, with cinematographer Greg Taylor on May 19, 2023, somewhat down the line in production, while waiting for new scans of archive material to be completed. “I told Jonathan, ‘We need a day of connective tissue.’ We were getting forensic, by that point, with each shot, with specific shots we needed, so I had a list of what to shoot,” such as Paul playing his Hofner bass to the track, in his studio. “I also had a list of pickup lines for Paul.” While there, the team also nabbed some pickup shots for Peter Jackson’s team, for the music video, to help them out as well.

Paul recreating adding his bass line at The Mill, for the cameras of documentary director Oliver Murray, May 19, 2023. Credit: © Apple Corps, Ltd.

“We didn’t bring a big package of gear there; it almost felt like a student film. And I think that was kind of a prerequisite for going down there. Paul’s busy; he was recording some new parts on some music of his own. So he just did a little of ‘Now and Then’ for us, and then a little bit for Peter.”

The footage of Ringo actually recording his new drum part for the song was shot by his longtime videographer, Brent Carpenter. Shots of the three Beatles working together on the song at The Mill in 1995 were filmed by The Beatles Anthology director, Geoff Wonfor.

On May 24, a few days after filming Paul, Oliver went to New Zealand to get some footage of Peter Jackson’s machine learning audio wizard, Emile de la Rey, someone who was at the center of the extraction of John’s vocal. Emile is seen at his workstation at Park Road Post Production, with some Get Back material up on the screen. A local team shot that footage.

Lots to Look At
The documentary is packed with not only footage of the Fabs at work on the song, but a mind-boggling selection of quickly-cut archive footage, which the filmmaker uses both to help bolster the story we’re being told and... just to have fun. The film was masterfully cut by his favorite editor, Jonny Halifax, with Oliver drawing on his own experience as an editor from his days crafting television commercials. The two cut the film at Jonny’s personal studio, rather than at an edit facility, something he notes, “It made it, for me, more of a labor of love than a ‘ratecard’ job.”

“I love using archive material as a kind of time machine,” the director states. “That’s always been my approach, ever since I started, really. I’ve been very lucky, from my very first film, The Quiet One, about Bill Wyman and his archive of Rolling Stones material. When you have access to amazing archive, you can use that archive as this time machine to go back in time and create immersive scenes. It becomes like a remix of that material, used to tell a modern story,” as he does here. But, as Jonny notes, “It was actually quite daunting the volume of access we had. We could quite literally use anything, which was potentially overwhelming initially.”

His research process, of course, meant going to Apple and looking through mountains of photos, as well as looking at hours of footage – but done so with his director’s hat on, not strictly as the Beatles fan that he is. Regarding the photos, “I went down a real rabbit hole, looking at stills, for a while. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t half doing it simply because I was at Apple,” he smiles. “But something I found I had to get over quite quickly was the reverence that I have for their material. I love their movies, but I had to look at shots and scenes from, say, A Hard Day’s Night, and have a healthy disregard for them as standalone films, and just look at it as viewing rushes, like any filmmaker/editor would,” to help build the story he wished to tell.

The director would start by playing, say, A Hard Day’s Night, “But I would play it mute. And sometimes at double speed, just to get the broad brush strokes of what is we’re looking at. It allows you to divorce it from the narrative, and just look for footage that will help Jonny actually tell the story.”

He adds, “I just have a weird stamina when it comes to watching material. And, crucially, not for fun. It’s very easy to sit there and go, ‘Oh, well, we’ll watch some Beatles material and not make any hard decisions.’ But that’s not the purpose here. It’s more, ‘Right, well, what do we like about this?’ Just looking at it moment to moment, clip by clip. Is there anything that, if you isolate it and repurpose it in the context with a ‘Now and Then’ story, that fans will really like.” He and Jonny were careful to make sure the film worked on two levels, both for the learned Beatles fan, as well as the newer, younger fan. “We want people to lose themselves in the story but, at the same time, appreciate little easter eggs and little moments, where the big fans will go, ‘Well, that’s funny, because that’s from such-and-such a show.’ But for the younger fan, who may not know their story, those facts might go totally over their heads, but they can just enjoy the story.’”

Paul, George and Ringo at The Mill, February 1995. Credit: © Apple Corps, Ltd.

While searching footage, Oliver might, say, find a perfect shot of John singing, to match a bit of the performance of “Now and Then,” from Andrew Solt’s 2000 documentary, Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, where John might be seen singing a vocal into a microphone, but carefully chosen to find a shot where his mouth is momentarily obscured by the mic, so that it isn’t obvious to the viewer that the words don’t match. “So you kind of go fishing for these individual shots and then get them on the editing timeline where you need them. And they become anchors in your story—little islands of footage that become important narrative components. And then you start to try and bridge the gaps with material that complements and gives you a structure.”

Notes Jonny, “We found some key pieces of John, and the most intimate, characterful shots of the group in the studio, and began crafting around those. Intimacy was always going to drive it, from the start.”

For a section, say, explaining the technology used by Emile de la Rey to isolate and restore John’s vocal, Oliver and Jonny inserted a clip from Yellow Submarine, from the “Sea of Science” sequence. “I wanted to make sure that when we talked about technology, that we kept it fun,” the director explains. “And that we kept it in the spirit of The Beatles,” allowing the audience to have a chuckle, perhaps, as the Fabs themselves would in such a moment. Jonny agrees. “We used a few shots from the film, as it really felt like a futuristic imagining of the A.I. process that was being described in our film. It was fantastical. And that’s how I imagined the process of audio separation would have seemed in the 60s. And, as Oliver says, it was also important to inject it all with humor. I think that’s always really important to make a piece feel more intimate.”

With the countless clips that he and Jonny used in their quickly-cut montages of fun, Apple took the opportunity to have whole pieces of film restored by Park Road Post, even though Oliver might be using just a few seconds worth of footage from that clip. “They’re really futureproofing all their assets, which is terrific,” he says. “The biggest restoration job was the footage shot of them in February 1964 at Abbey Road while they were recording the music tracks for A Hard Day’s Night. You don’t even notice, because it’s all restored so lovingly. But that was a ropey copy that they first got a hold of. But it looks amazing now, and we were fortunate to be able to use it.”

Paul, recording his acoustic guitar part for “Now and Then” at The Mill, February 1995. Credit: © Apple Corps, Ltd.

With two filmmakers at work on films celebrating “Now and"Then"—Oliver and Peter Jackson—both found themselves drawing from the same pool of Apple archive resources, needing to avoid using the same imagery. “I actually deliberately didn’t want to know too much about what Peter was doing on the music video side, for that reason,” simply focusing instead on his storytelling. “Though there are a couple of elements where Jonathan said, ‘Maybe don’t use that,’ with a bit of a wink that it was being used over in New Zealand,” he laughs. “And I know that was a two-way street.” Scenes, say, showing Paul and George at work on the song at The Mill in 1995 went the music video’s direction.

“I didn’t mind giving away a few bits and pieces. Cause this was a short film. So I leaned very heavily on my writing background, where I try to be as lean as possible with it, which gave us the opportunity to be quite flexible with the imagery. And if they really wanted one, then we traded off a couple of times.” The two actually both, independently, came to using the same black and white “bowing” shot from 1964, which ended up as the close to Peter’s video. “At one point, he had the same shot as I’d chosen. But we just changed it to the shot of the headphones,” taken from the end of the “Hey Bulldog” studio footage as Paul and John wrap up their recording of that song. “It ended up more appropriate for us anyway, since this is a studio record, nothing to do with a live performance. And it nodded more to John’s absence. So I simply swapped it out.”

So how does anybody cut together such amazing, fun montages in the way these two did? It starts with having a director rooted in commercials and an editor who’s used to cutting fast. “I actually started out making TV commercials,” says Oliver. “It’s such a great place to start, because it’s that level of forensic attention to shots. What can you do in 10 or 20 seconds?”

The original plan, he notes, was to celebrate the release with cinema screenings of the doc, but, globally speaking, most people would seek the film out via the internet. “The idea was to get as many people—and as many young people—to watch it. So YouTube was where that would take place, and on laptop screens and the like. So that immediately puts me in the mindset of, from my commercials background, ‘Okay, you have 3 seconds.’ So that set the pace. And I said to Jonny, regarding the opening montage, ‘We have to hit people right in the face at the start, like a big Beatles-shaped wet fish.’ And we enjoyed that.”

Regarding the “wet fish slap,” Jonny notes, “This was, more than anything, a ‘How the hell do we start this?’ moment. We found a whole section in one of the Beatles Anthology segments with a whole section of audio outtakes from studio recordings. And I think this very quickly brought us right in close, like you’re an invisible fly on the wall to a Beatles recording session.” There were also some wonderful trailer-like elements from their films, which portray the boys entertaining themselves, messing about rather than doing what the director is telling them to do, he notes. “Irreverence! Again, all good ways to quickly remind the older viewers why we love each Beatle, and for the younger viewers to see how they each have quite unique characteristics as individuals.”

Jonny was equally versed in fast and fun cuts, Oliver notes. “Jonny’s cut a lot of Julian Temple’s movies. So he’s well versed in playful use of archive. He’s a bit of a ‘punk editor.’ It’s like taking that punk sensibility into, ‘Can we do that? Can we take The Beatles and use this material this way?’ We’re not going to work out the chronology of the cut that we’ve just made; we’re just going to do it. Cause it serves the story.”

The two were always conscious of whether they were taking things too far or not, thoughtfully avoiding the former. “I would do a short list of all of these individual clips, individual moments and send them to Jonny. Because, with these montages, it’s how two clips exist together. It’s how it all runs together, both to tell a story but, at the same time, have fun with the legacy—but without taking it lightly.”

The voiceovers heard over the closing credits, by the way, are actual session discussions, taken from various sources Apple provided.

Legacy and Emotional Impact
The original brief was to create, at most, a 5-minute film, but as such things go, the film became longer, ending up at 12 minutes. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll give myself 9 minutes and 59 seconds. Any more than that, and I’m sure someone will tell me it’s too long.’ And it never happened.”

The result is something that easily runs viewers through the process of making a historic recording without ever getting bogged down in details, which would otherwise chase them away. And, once again, it was John’s voice that carried us through. “I knew, early on, that the emotional climax was going to be John’s solo vocal. That it would soar off the back of all of those pieces about legacy. It might be the end of the catalog, but it’s certainly not the end of the legacy.”

This article is an accompaniment to the feature "The Creation of The Beatles’ Last Song and the Rebirth of Red and Blue" that you can read here.

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This documentary beautifully captures the essence of The Beatles final recording immersing viewers in both the technical process and emotional journey. Oliver Murrays approach blending intimate interviews and captivating archival footage truly brings the story to life.
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